ALBUM TITLE: Collection: Great Pianists of the 20th Century, Vols 9 & 10
WORKS: Music by various composers
PERFORMER: Josef Hofmann, Vladimir Horowitz, William Kapell, Alicia de Larrocha, Nikita Magaloff, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Maria João Pires, Maurizio Pollini, Artur Rubinstein, Solomon, Daniel Barenboim, Alfred Brendel, Robert Casadesus, Shura Cherkassky, Alfr
CATALOGUE NO: see text for catalogue numbers
And now it’s complete, Philips’s massive edition featuring leading pianists of our nearly vanished century. Although pianophiles can easily quibble with the criteria that put some pianists or recordings in and left others out, executive producer Tom Deacon has provided a representative overview of the work of most of the pianists included (a few notable exceptions—Gould, Gulda, and Serkin in past installments, Hofmann and Barenboim in the last two) and in some instances has hit the bull’s-eye, choosing recordings that make the best possible case for certain pianists. At the very least, listening to these compilations is like making one’s way through a collection of books recommended by a well-read friend—we persevere with (and sometimes are won over to) items we find uncongenial when we know they are valued by someone whose tastes match ours much of the time.
In two sets the selections tendentiously colour perceptions of the pianists in question. My past experiences with the recordings of Nikita Magaloff have been invariably dispiriting, so much so that I initially considered his inclusion in this series an outrage. I still don’t think he equals the playing of numerous pianists who were somehow overlooked, but pliable technique and limpid sonority in Liszt and Chopin (456 898-2) partially offset his tendency toward rhythmic vagueness and dynamic blandness, and his account of Chopin’s rarely played Sonata No. 1 possesses ample fire and backbone. The opposite effect occurs in the case of Josef Hofmann (456 836-2): Including only his studio-made commercial recordings (the 5 G&Ts, about half the Columbias, and all the originally published Brunswicks, making this the only set in the edition consisting entirely of acoustical recordings) provides a sadly incomplete picture of his playing. Despite many gems—such as Rubinstein’s ‘Melody in F’, an unsurpassable lyrical outpouring emerging from meticulously partitioned layers of sonority—the power and dynamism of Hofmann’s playing are insufficiently apparent.
Eventually, however, one stops evaluating the contents and responds anew to the music-making. My greatest thrills in working through this edition have come when I stumble across a wonderful recording that either circumstances or preconceptions have prevented me from hearing earlier. In this category, Alfred Brendel’s account of Mendelssohn’s ‘Variations sérieuses’ (456 733-2) turns out to be one of the most urgent and inventive of my experience, and Artur Rubinstein’s intimately poetic, posthumously released 1965 performance of Schubert’s Sonata D. 960 (456 967-2) is an immeasurable improvement on the 1969 recording that made one think the pianist had no affinity for the piece. Somehow I had missed hearing Maria João Pires’s Schumann ‘Arabeske’ until now (456 928-2), and it’s even more beautiful than I would have predicted: graceful but cogent, with a final chord that rings as though it had set in motion the sympathetic vibration of the universe.
Beyond such discoveries, one revels in the variety of unmistakable personalities on display. No-one in the entire edition is more expressively specific or directly communicative than Alfred Cortot, particularly in preludes by Chopin (the 1933-34 recording) and Debussy (456 754-2). Alicia de Larrocha’s fingerwork in Bach and in Haydn’s F minor variations possesses an electric combination of clarity and intensity (456 886-2). The extent of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s calculation and pianistic polish continues to amaze (456 904-2); whatever one thinks of the results, he forges—as do (in their very different ways) William Kapell (456 853-2) and Maurizio Pollini (456 940-2)—a way of playing in which expression and impeccable technique are synonymous. Shura Cherkassky could not be more different (456 745-2); for him, magical moments arise spontaneously out of whimsically relaxed playing, an approach guaranteeing both disjointedness and fleeting glimpses of sheer poetry (there are more of the latter in Schumann’s Kreisleriana than in the other selections of this volume). Andrei Gavrilov’s pensive touch and merciless resolution of technical difficulties makes him seem to deconstruct everything he plays, from Handel to Schumann’s Papillons to Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet (456 787-2). There’s no more comprehensive achievement in the edition than Edwin Fischer’s in Mozart’s D minor Concerto (456 769-2): naturalness, poise, delicacy, playfulness, and dramatic sweep all combine to create an endlessly fascinating and rewarding performance. And then there are Solomon, Hess, Casadesus, Horowitz….
It should be amply evident that countless stimulating discoveries and experiences await those who take time to explore this edition thoroughly. Above all, extended exposure to it teaches one to recognise both the highest standards in piano playing and the fact that many paths can lead to those lofty realms.